After nominating real estate practice head F. Chase Simmons to succeed W. Russell Welsh as head of Polsinelli late last month, the Am Law 100 firm confirmed his ascension to its top leadership role after a partnership vote Thursday.
Simmons, who ran unopposed in the vote, will become the third chairman of the firm when he officially succeeds Welsh on Jan. 1, 2019. The American Lawyer caught up this week with Welsh and Simmons to discuss next steps, Welsh’s legacy as leader and what lies ahead for the fast-growing Kansas City, Missouri-based firm.
The American Lawyer: Russ, you’re stepping down after nearly 20 years at the helm of Polsinelli. Why did you decide right now was the right time to step away?
Welsh: We have some really great firmwide leadership in the various practice groups and I felt that it was time for a change of leadership, mostly because this is a new generation and they need leaders of their own, not leaders of the past generation, to hopefully continue on the legacy that we’ve built.
TAL: Looking back over your tenure at the firm, what are some of the highlights for you?
Welsh: We started the firm in Kansas City and now 70 percent of our firm is outside Kansas City, but what we’ve endeavored to do is maintain the same culture and values that we began with. Of course that’s more difficult as you get larger and have to fly around instead of walk around the offices, but I think we’ve done a good job maintaining the culture, the commitment to client service and the values from when we started.
TAL: When people look back at your time leading Polsinelli, what do you want them to think of?
Welsh: I’d like them to think you can do great things without being centered on the coasts. In the early 2000s, we could have either wrung our hands that we weren’t centered in New York or San Francisco or we could try to take advantage of it. I think what we’ve done emphasizes and demonstrates that you can create something that’s really valuable and lasting without having to be centered on either coast.
TAL: You both will be working on an 18-month transition. What specifically will you be addressing during that time?
Welsh: My hope is that I can help walk [Simmons] through some of the internal workings of the firm [and] introduce him to key relationships as he transitions his practice and his leadership of a practice group to leadership of the entire firm.
TAL: It’s a bit early, but Chase, what are your goals as head of the firm? Are you going to continue targeting the middle-market clients that Polsinelli has courted in the past or are you looking to bring something new into the mix?
Simmons (pictured right): I wouldn’t have been interested in this role if I didn’t buy into the strategy that the board and [Welsh] has put in place and reiterated just this last year. We will focus on the middle-market. We’ve identified seven practice areas and industries that we believe are core and we’ve got a business plan that’s flexible enough to allow other opportunities. Right now, that seems to me to be the right strategy.
TAL: Polsinelli has been on a growth spurt in recent years. What’s on the radar in terms of expansion opportunities for the firm?
Welsh: We’ll continue to build out the practices that we’ve identified as key for the firm where we think we’ve got breadth and depth and differentiate ourselves, but we’ll also focus on adding those practices in the new offices that we’ve opened over the last five years. We’ve got about 20 major city offices and in 15 of them we’ve moved to a new space in the last four years, so we have opportunities for growth. There are probably a couple other cities in the states that look like good opportunities for us and where we have strong client relationships. I don’t see expanding internationally in the short run, but that’s really for [Simmons] and the new leadership to decide a couple of years from now.
TAL: What’s your view on Swiss vereins? Or any other potential law firm combinations?
Welsh: We’re a one-firm organization and we’re not creating franchises, we’re creating one firm where people work together across the entire firm. And, in terms of combinations, we’ve been a beneficiary of that approach and we will continue to look for opportunities that fit with our culture and our practice areas.
TAL: So Russ, what are your plans once you step away from Polsinelli?
Welsh: Shortly after turning over the reins to [Simmons,] I will step away from the firm. As to what happens next, I have a number of opportunities but I’m not focused on that. I told others that there are two ways to go about this: One, you can look at what you’re going to do 18 months or two years from now and focus on that. Or, two, you can run through the tape to the finish line, and that’s what I intend to do.
All interviews are condensed and edited for style, brevity and clarity.